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Central Ave. Imam Wrapped Up In 2004 FBI Sting Nears Release, Deportation

Activists have long insisted that the terrorism case against two Albany residents in 2004 was more of a frame-up than a sting.  The two were given 15-year federal prison sentences for their involvement in an alleged money-laundering incident tied to the sale of a fake shoulder-fired missile. The local Muslim community is hosting an annual rally Saturday, the anniversary of the arrests.

Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain were nabbed in a sting that drew national headlines in 2004.

Aref, who had been imam at the Masjid As-Salam, and Hossain, a Central Avenue businessman, were convicted in 2006 after a trial that included testimony from an FBI informant, Shahed Hussein, a Capital Region resident who constructed the plot, according to FBI instructions.

The men were arrested at a time when the shadow of 9/11 continued to fuel public fear.

But Aref and Hossain were never forgotten by Albany advocates and activists like Lynn Jackson, who volunteers with the Muslim Solidarity Committee and the Capital District Commission Against Islamophobia.    "The fact that these men were targeted, really because of their religion, I find so un-American and appalling."
For years, supporters of the imam and the pizza-maker tried to get the two released, without success.  "You know just, what a waste. He's been missed by his family and his wife and his children and the people at the Masjid As-Salam..."

In 2014, Masjid As-Salam mosque president Dr. Shamshad Ahmad told WAMC that despite trying all legal means,   "From day one, we knew that the hope of bringing them back here is almost nil."

Aref is incarcerated in Pennsylvania, now near the end of his prison term. Steve Downs is one of Aref's volunteer attorneys.   "He's getting ready to leave in October and go back to Kurdistan. We're trying to make sure that he gets deported quickly. That was his desire — to get deported quickly rather than trying to fight to stay in the United States. I think he would rather go back to Kurdistan at this point and make a new life there. His kids are American citizens, so they will probably be, uh, will certainly be coming back to the United States from time to time."

Aref's daughter Alaa was 9 when he was arrested. She says all in all, he has adapted to prison life and has maintained good spirit.  "He's very well physically and he appears to be also, like mentally and spiritually very well. He's always laughing and joking, and overall I think he's doing good. I mean as well as you can do in a prison, of course. He is a very uplifting person. Even like when we see him he's often the one like uplifting us rather than the other way around, and telling us jokes and keeping us happy rather than the other way around. It's just his personality."

Downs says there are "literally hundreds of cases" similar to Aref-Hossain involving entrapment as a result of fear of terrorism. In 2013, Aref's attorneys had found new evidence, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that Aref had been misidentified by the FBI. The basis for an appeal was that government officials had mistaken Aref for an Al-Qaeda operative.   "Although he never said anything that was violent, never said anything that suggested that he was prone to violence or to terrorism, they nonetheless went after him and convicted him and locked him up, then only much later, three or four years later after he was convicted and locked up, we learned that there was an Al-Qaeda bomb maker named Mohammed Yasin who had blown himself up in Gaza."

That appeal was denied.

Saturday at 5:30, the Masjid As-Salam mosque hosts its annual rally, dinner and program marking the anniversary of Aref's arrest. Jeanne Finley call herself a "supporter and friend."   "As the old song says, 'What a long, strange trip it's been.' It's not quite over yet because Mohamed Hossain of course is not going to be released until 2020. And he is the other half of this terrible case. No one is the same. The world isn't the same. The community isn't the same. The individuals aren't the same. But the result is that, it's almost over."

Meantime Alaa is preparing for the trip to her father's native Kurdistan.   "Of course we don't know when my father will be deported so I don't know how long I'm going to be there for. I want to stay there to especially support my mom until I feel like she's okay."

Dave Lucas - "Have you ever been there before?"

"I've never been there, no."

Additional Reading:

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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